There should be no way that, at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, children as young as seven aren’t just listening, but aptly paying attention to somebody speaking, especially when they see fancy football equipment surrounding them.
But there it was — a group of 30-plus kids, gathered outside Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, hanging onto every word as Florida State Seminoles football head coach Mike Norvell presided over them, channeling the same level of energy you’d expect to see out of him at a mid-season practice.
“This isn’t just a chance to get better at football, it’s a chance to get better at everything,” he told the group, repeating a mantra that has embodied the Norvell tenure — how you do anything is how you do everything. “When I say eyes up, you say keep climbing, okay?”
“In my 30 years of coaching, I’ve never seen anyone like him,” said Reese, now the head coach at Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, Calif. “He’s the only kid I knew who would watch a football game on TV and spend the whole time analyzing it. ‘Why do they do this? Why do they do that?’
“He was 12 and already looking at the game deeper than anyone else.”
Norvell has always been one to emphasize what football means not just athletically, but for a community. He’s mentioned on a number of occasions how football helped raise him and provide structure growing up, as well as constantly referring to his coaches at every level, from Pop Warner to college, as true mentors and educators for who he aimed to be.
From his Dec. 2019 introductory press conference:
To my former coaches, David Reese, coached me in peewee league football. To Mike Barber, who coached me in high school. To Clint Conque, who coached me in college. To Gus Malzahn who hired me as an offensive graduate assistant there at the University of Tulsa. To Todd Graham, who I spent nine years with as an assistant coach, gave me an opportunity to be a coordinator, to really live out my dream as a Division I assistant.
The impact you guys have made on my life in helping build me, develop me, support me through all the decisions that have been made, to my growth as a coach and as a person, I’m forever grateful for you. You are the reason why I do what I do. I can hopefully one day have players that look at me the way I look at you, respect you, for the jobs you did for me and my journey of growth.
Reese helped look after Norvell, a child in a single-parent home, and encouraged his interest and natural take to football, serving as the builder of the base that would become his coaching philosophy. Barber, his high school coach, also ran a prison ministry, taking the time to travel and visit with inmates, praying with them.
“A lot of the values that he had were things that I made values in my life, just because they were the right way to do things,” Norvell said in a 2016 profile.
‘That’s why (Reese and Barber) were inspirational to me. Because it wasn’t just football.”
Knowing full well what the game, what being part of a team and community and leadership, can do for a kid having lived it first hand, Norvell walks the walk when it comes to giving back.
Watching Norvell coach up kids who barely know how to read an entire book with enthusiasm and vigor, you understand that there is real, actual substance behind those words.
“Eyes up!”— Tomahawk Nation (@TomahawkNation) May 22, 2021
Somehow, the FSU coaching staff has kids listening and paying attention pic.twitter.com/YQ5WNA45zN
He and his staff were giving it their all on that Saturday morning, even though it was a free camp, even though some of these kids literally had no idea who any of these coaches were or why they were doing anything they were doing.
There is no recruiting benefit to these camps — at most, there could be an extremely talented 8th grader who maybe in four years give a little bit more weight to the experience when making a decision on where to attend. These aren’t fundraising missions, or booster handshake events, or photo ops (outside of the parents stoked to see their kids try and adequately hit a tackling dummy), they’re legitimate, uplifting experiences for communities across Florida, unprecedented by any other staff before him at FSU — or really, any other major university in the state.
Here was a Power Five college football staff, complete with assistants, hanging around for photo ops, talking with parents casually, coaching up elementary school children for free, solely to give them an opportunity to experience it.
“We all need direction,” he said in an interview with Tomahawk Nation earlier this year. “And as a coach, I get to kind of pour everything I have into them to help provide them with the structure of what it takes to be successful and to push them to levels that maybe they don’t know that they’re capable of being able to achieve. It’s a profession and a position that I’ve always respected. The great coaches that I had, as I was growing up, you know, they helped you invest in me not only what I was a football player, but the young man and I’m excited to be able to do that.”
There is an almost Ted Lasso-esque sincerness to Norvell’s desire to not just coach winners on the field, but off it as well, and it is constantly on display. Each coach falls prey to coach speak (the generic, non-answers we’ve heard from everybody at every level), but for Norvell, he conveys the honesty of his desire to uplift and impact through the game. The way he’s run around at each of these stops, scooping up the kids too young to participate but still curious and helping them through the drills, shows just how much the game has meant to him, and how much he knows it can give back.